University of Leicester eBulletin

Treasure-Trove of Roman Arms from a 'Lost City' 

May 2004
No 125


A University of Leicester archaeologist is about to publish a book revealing discoveries from an ancient city in Syria which provide a unique insight into the lives - and violent deaths - of Roman soldiers on the eastern limits of the empire.

The location of the ancient city of Dura-Europos was forgotten until 1920, when Indian troops rediscovered it. In digging trenches, they accidentally revealed wall-paintings, one naming the city and showing its Roman garrison on parade.

The city, which overlooks the River Euphrates near the Iraqi border, was extensively excavated between the world wars, producing spectacular finds such as a painted synagogue and early Christian chapel, which led to its being dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Syrian Desert.’

Not the least of the finds were astonishingly well-preserved arms and armour belonging to the Roman garrison, which was besieged by the Persians around AD 256. These included painted wooden shields, complete horse-armours, and hundreds of other items. The Persians destroyed the city, which was never fully reoccupied, helping to explain the remarkable survival of the finds.

World War II interrupted publication of the mass of discoveries from Dura, and it is only in recent years that detailed work on the military equipment has been undertaken, by Simon James of the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

His new book, Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-37, Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour, is hailed as: “the most important single collection of arms, armour and other equipment to survive from the Roman period”, and uncovers in text and illustrations a collection exceptional for its size, diversity and state of preservation. Dura’s assemblage of armour and weapons also offers a rare view of Rome’s forgotten Eastern armies.

Dr Simon James, of the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, explained:  “Dura Europos is arguably the most important single find of Roman armour ever made, uncovering weapons and items of military dress deposited at the site during a siege.

“We know a lot about Roman military activities in Western Europe, but much less about their armies in the East of the Empire, so this site is most important as an insight on Rome’s activities in the East.”

The volume features a series of highly detailed reconstruction paintings of the equipment and appearance of the Roman soldiers of Dura-Europos. Dr James, who is an expert on Roman military archaeology continued:  “I have been an illustrator, so painting the reconstructions helped me work out how the equipment was put together. It became part of the research process.

“You can tell a great deal through their dress about how Roman soldiers expressed their identity, and even how they moved and sounded. For instance, military belts included two pendants, which made a characteristic noise as the soldiers walked. So, added to the noise made by their hobnail boots, you could always recognise the sound of an approaching soldier.”

“The Excavations at Dura-Europos conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters 1928 to 1937, Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour, and Other Military Equipment”, by Dr Simon James, published by the British Museum Press, £95, (ISBN 0-7141-2248-3) will be launched at the British Museum Press, 46 Bloomsbury St London, WC1, on Thursday, May 20 at 6pm.

The University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History is one of the largest and most prestigious in the country, supporting internationally acclaimed research projects, which won the School top marks (Grade 5) in the most recent government Research Assessment Exercise. Roman history and industrial archaeology are among its most renowned research areas.

NOTE TO EDITORS:   Further information is available from Dr Simon James, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, tel 0116 252 2535, email  

Caption for the jpeg image: A reconstruction of the appearance of a Roman armoured cavalryman (cataphract) of the third century AD, based on archaeological evidence from Dura-Europos, Syria. Painted by Simon James. (c) S James, 2003.

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